Understand the 4 Common CTO Personas

November 19, 2019

Contributor: Rob van der Meulen

Enterprise stakeholders can realize the full value of the chief technology officer when the role is understood through four distinct personas.

The chief technology officer (CTO) is one of the least understood and most broad of all C-suite positions. The role is often tasked with pursuing multiple abstract goals such as “driving innovation,” “identifying emerging technologies” or simply “managing IT operations.” Success and progress in these areas can be difficult to quantify, leaving the role inconsistently defined. 

Defining the CTO role and ensuring that it is aligned with business priorities has become increasingly important in today’s era of digital transformation. Gartner Principal Analyst Samantha Searle explains that typically CTOs can have four main personas within an organization. 

“Identifying the personas of CTOs and other technology innovation leaders represents an opportunity to shape and evolve their roles to support digital business transformation,” says Searle. “Simultaneously, understanding patterns in the industry and the different personas can help business leaders tailor the CTO role to their organizational goals.” Searle outlines the four most common CTO personas and how each contributes to business goals.

The four common CTO personas

The digital business leader

Typically a peer to the CIO, the digital business leader focuses on leveraging innovative technologies to transform an organization’s business model, products and services. CTOs in this role must have a deep understanding of technology trends, insight into how other organizations are leveraging these technologies to innovate and knowledge of how these technologies could potentially be applied within their organization. 

The approach of this CTO is often to “push” technology toward the main business functions. Responsible for creating the company’s digital business strategies, this CTO becomes the leader of the teams that will architect the required digital platforms. Typical responsibilities include:

  • Partnering with CIOs so they can work with business executives to identify, rationalize, and roadmap new business models and capabilities 
  • Leading the organizations that drive innovative and strategic thinking for the company, such as enterprise architecture, innovation management and R&D
  • Holding the funding and decision-making authority for innovation-driven technology investments
  • Working with business functions to understand customer and market requirements in order to translate them into digital products and services

The business enabler

In industries where technology is the company’s product (or a key part of it), the CTO is often the person in charge of that technology. The business enabler ensures that the technology is operating as intended and evolving in lockstep with the business. This CTO persona includes CTOs who are in charge of operational technology and lead a team of product engineers.

Ensuring that business and customer needs are met is a high priority, and a coordinated, responsive IT delivery mechanism with focused leadership and chain of command is essential. This role is often a complement to the CIO. Where the CIO is focused on running the IT organization, the CTO is working across business and IT to govern and guide technology decisions. Typical responsibilities include:

  • Making key decisions on technology investments
  • Participating in piloting and building digital business platforms
  • Working collaboratively with product and engineering teams on the development of new products, enhancements and redesigns
  • Ensuring that the appropriate risk assessments are made when introducing new information and operational technology into the organization

The IT innovator

As a technology visionary and change agent for IT, the IT innovator provides leadership to enterprise architects, innovation managers, technology specialists and other professionals in shared IT services. Sometimes this persona is also the head of architecture, guiding the impact of IT innovations. These CTOs usually hold an executive position within IT and report to the CIO. Typical responsibilities include:

  • Serving as the central point for technology innovation within IT
  • Determining the enterprise technology strategy, leveraging both mainstream and emerging technologies to transform IT operations
  • Leading a team of software engineers who have adopted an agile, DevOps-oriented approach
  • Modernizing infrastructure, leveraging technologies including hybrid multicloud, edge computing, containerization and automation.

The chief operating officer of IT

In very large organizations with significant IT headcount, this CTO is focused on the day-to-day running of IT. This frees the CIO to work at a more strategic level across the business. The primary goal of the chief operating officer of IT is to meet agreed-upon delivery of IT services in support of the existing business model. These CTOs are heavily involved in IT purchasing and procurement decisions for both technologies and services.  Typical responsibilities include:

  • Running and maintaining IT operations through IT service management, vendor management, shared IT services, data center, telecommunications and security
  • Ensuring that internal and external systems are performing as they should by actively monitoring and responding to incidents that might affect systems
  • Engaging in procurement of technology centered around modernization, optimization and consolidation, and of major IT systems such as CRM or ERP

“These personas are intended as a guide more than as an exhaustive list,” says Searle. “If we look at high-tech industry organizations, we see additional common personas, with the CTO often acting as a technology evangelist or even as the person leading the invention and design of the core product.”

Regardless of their persona, the most important take-away is that CTOs and their organizations agree on what the role means in its unique context. Through this shared understanding, the CTO can work closely with business leaders to drive digital transformation efforts and meet business goals.

This article has been updated from the original, published on April 12, 2018, to reflect new events, conditions or research.

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